Exactly a week ago this site discussed the new MicroFest Records label and one of its first releases, Mystic Canyon, a recording of two compositions by Bill Alves for violin and gamelan. At the same time MicroFest released a second album of Alves’ music, this one entitled Guitars & Gamelan. There are four compositions on the album, each of which takes its own unique approach to music-making. Not all of the compositions involve gamelan performance, but the ideas behind gamelan concerned with both rhythm and intonation are present throughout the recording. On the other hand at least one guitar is present on each track.
Perhaps the best way to begin is with Alves’ concerto for guitar and gamelan, which complements the concerto for violin and gamelan on Mystic Canyon. While violinists can easily adjust their ears to play in just intonation, the placement of frets on a guitar lock the instrument into equal-tempered tuning. However, Walter Vogt built a guitar based on what he called a Fret-Mobile system, which allows the frets to be set on a string-by-string basis. This is the instrument that John Schneider (co-founder with Alves of the MicroFest music festival, from which the record label emerged) plays in performing Alves’ concerto. (One can see the alternative disposition of frets on the album cover illustrated above.)
As was the case with the Mystic Canyon performances, Schneider plays with the HMC (Harvey Mudd College) American Gamelan conducted by Alves. The instruments are metallophones (one of which is also illustrated on the album cover) and gongs; but the rhetoric is unmistakably Western. Nevertheless, that Javanese style in which the music gradually makes its presence known clearly influences the first movement, which begins with a relatively short guitar cadenza, after which the listener gradually becomes aware of the metallophones. Rhetorically, the concerto gives the impression that the guitarist is exploring different approaches to improvisation within the contexts established by the gamelan; but the moments when soloist and ensemble come into alignment suggest that the composition itself is rigorously specified..
Such specificity is even more evident in “Rational Basis,” which is performed by the electric guitar ensemble Los Angeles Electric 8, for which it was composed. The title refers to internals based on the ratios of whole numbers. (All the intervals of just intonation are based on ratios of numbers that are multiples of 2, 3, and 5.) In this case Alves surmounts the fret problem by having all notes played on open strings and then requiring a different tuning for each instrument. This is the composition in which gamelan is present in spirit, since the melodic passages are based on a gamut of just-intonation pitch classes that resembles the slendro of Indonesian music.
“Metalloid,” on the other hand uses a scale based on the third and seventh harmonics. (My guess is that theorists are still arguing over whether or not the seventh harmonic defines the interval of the “blue” seventh in jazz and blues.) In this case the gamut is established by both open guitar strings and synthesizer keyboards; and the wind players (clarinet and saxophone) can adjust their intonation accordingly. Percussion for this piece is provided by a drum kit, and the result sounds a bit like jamming in an alternative tuning system.
The opening selection on the album is “Angin Listrik” (Indonesian for “electrical storm”). It was composed for Gamelan Dharma Kanti, based at the University of California at Santa Cruz. This is an ensemble of brass instruments known as a Gamelan Semar Pengulingan, which originated on Bali. This ensemble provides “backup” for a pair of electric guitars using a 5+3 rhythmic background. The guitar parts, however, are almost pure rock-style shredding, making the resulting composition a particularly stunning superposition of strikingly (pun sort of intended) different worlds.
The reader should have concluded by now that there is far more diversity on Guitars & Gamelan than there was on Mystic Canyon, but each recording definitely has its own virtues.